Travis Kalanick

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“You’re far better off affecting policy if you’re in the room” is a true statement in U.S. politics if we’re talking about your average conservative, liberal or moderate elected official, but it doesn’t extend to this moment in our history, with a reckless, dangerous, kleptocratic and, perhaps, traitorous sociopath in the White House.

In this case, it’s better to be outside the room, refusing to lend your reputation to an aspiring autocrat and raising your voice in protest, especially if you have a giant megaphone like Travis Kalanick or Elon Musk. The former did the morally correct thing in resigning from Trump’s economic advisory council, while the latter still sees this un-American Administration as a game he can officiate.

In a jaw-dropping BuzzFeed article, William Alden reports on political consultant Bradley Tusk’s work advising Silicon Valley titans on how to deal with a deeply irregular White House, encouraging them to ignore their consciences at all costs and do what’s best for the bottom line. It’s not shocking there are people so amoral they can’t see beyond business as usual even in these desperate times, but it is surprising to hear someone so publicly announce such a dicey position.

An excerpt:

Last week, he sent a memo to clients outlining a strategy for dealing with Trump, advising them to take a deep breath and think before engaging in political protest. Taking a stand against Trump might be the right choice, Tusk said, but only if it makes business sense.

“If the business demands immediate action, that’s one thing. If it’s your conscience, that’s another,” he wrote in the memo. Pressure from the media or even from employees, he added, wouldn’t necessarily be a sufficient reason to speak out, especially if it would create other problems.

The memo came just days after Tusk’s flagship client, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, resigned from President Trump’s economic advisory council. More than 200,000 Uber customers had deleted their accounts, according to The New York Times, after the ride-hailing company was accused of trying to undermine a taxi strike over Trump’s immigration order. Uber also came under pressure from employees and drivers, many of whom are immigrants. Kalanick’s resignation from the advisory council contrasted with the decision of another tech titan, Elon Musk, to stay there.

“This is one of those cases where the symbolism and the emotion on both sides of it took everything in such an incredible direction that people like Travis, like Elon, who are pretty well intentioned, and are saying, ‘O.K., let’s see if we can help things,’ got put in a really, really impossible position,” Tusk told BuzzFeed News. “And they’re handling it in different ways. But that’s kind of why I wrote this memo.”

Tusk said Kalanick made the right decision in this case, but he expressed regret that it had to be that way. “I think Travis joined the council for the right reasons,” Tusk said. “You’re far better off affecting policy if you’re in the room.”•

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#deleteuber exploded across Twitter last night when the ride-share company tried to exploit the flash taxi drivers’ strike at JFK against Trump’s anti-immigrant ban. It was alarming the company treated a Constitutional crisis as if it were business-as-usual but unsurprising considering Uber’s past dubious ethical behavior and Travis Kalanick’s recent defense of his relationship with the Administration: “We’ll partner with anyone in the world.” Really? Trips to internment camps, even?

There are other reasons to be wary of piecemeal employment, that Libertarian wet dream, and the main one is that it often undermines solid middle-class jobs and replaces them with uncertainty. And, no, despite what some might say, most Uber employees aren’t entrepreneurs just driving until venture-capital seed money comes in for their start-up; they’re actually trying to somehow subsist in this new normal. It isn’t easy.

The opening of Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski Bloomberg piece:

In the 1970s, the Safeway grocery store in San Francisco’s gleaming Marina neighborhood, known as the Social Safeway, was a cornerstone of the pre-Tinder dating scene. Armistead Maupin made it famous in his 1978 book, Tales of the City, calling it “the hottest spot in town” to meet people. For years afterward, locals called it the “Singles Safeway” or the “Dateway.”

Forty years later, German Tugas, a 42-year-old Uber driver, got to know it for another reason: Its parking lot was a safe spot to sleep in his car. Tugas drives over 70 hours a week in San Francisco, where the work is steadier and fares are higher than in his hometown, Sacramento. So every Monday morning, Tugas leaves at 4 a.m., says goodbye to his wife and four daughters, drives 90 miles to the city, and lugs around passengers until he earns $300 or gets too tired to keep going. (Most days he nets $230 after expenses like gas.) Then, he and at least a half dozen other Uber drivers gathered in the Social Safeway parking lot to sleep in their cars before another long day of driving.  

“That’s the sacrifice,” he said in May, smoking a cigarette beside his Toyota Prius parked at the Safeway at 1 a.m., the boats in the bay bobbing gently in the background. “My goal is to get a house somewhere closer, so that I don’t have to do this every day.”

The vast majority of Uber’s full-time drivers return home to their beds at the end of a day’s work. But all over the country, there are many who don’t.•

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It’s not that Uber shouldn’t switch to driverless vehicles when that technology is perfected, but the company shouldn’t simultaneously be selling themselves as a panacea for a tough employment market, using everyone from military veterans to the murdered Eric Garner to sell such nonsense. When not touting his company as a savior for those squeezed from a shifting job market, Travis Kalanick has spoken out fo the other side of his mouth about wanting to replace every Uber driver. He’s welcome to speak about how autonomous cars will be good for the environment and safety and costs–they likely will be–but he shouldn’t be trying to soft-pedal the effect it will have on Labor.

From Uber’s latest release on its driverless initiative:

If you’re driving around Pittsburgh in the coming weeks you might see a strange sight: a car that looks like it should be driven by a superhero. But this is no movie prop — it’s a test car from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh.

The car, a hybrid Ford Fusion, will be collecting mapping data as well as testing its self-driving capabilities. When it’s in self-driving mode, a trained driver will be in the driver’s seat monitoring operations. The Uber ATC car comes outfitted with a variety of sensors including radars, laser scanners, and high resolution cameras to map details of the environment.

Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology. Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world.  1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94% of those accidents involve human error. In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents. These goals are at the heart of Uber’s mission to make transportation as reliable as running water — everywhere and for everyone.

While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements. Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road — pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. We’ve informed local officials and law enforcement about our testing in Pittsburgh, and our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from the region’s leaders.•



Uber should, of course, not be prevented from becoming a company of driverless taxis when innovation makes that possible. But CEO Travis Kalanick’s part-time pose as a champion of Labor is an infuriatingly dishonest stance. Autonomous vehicles and Uber’s business model may both be great in many ways, but they’re not good for workers. Not in the short and medium term, at least, and likely never.

Kalanick, who recently discussed his company’s robotic tomorrow with Marc Benioff, sees the transition to AI coming in 10 or 15 years or so. In commentary on Bloomberg, Forrester analyst James McQuivey thinks the future is just around the bend and Kalanick too conservative in his estimation of the driverless ETA. He also believes Kalanick’s job itself will likely be a casualty of the autonomous revolution (and other factors).

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It’s Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s prerogative if he wishes to replace his drivers with autonomous cars in an attempt to make his company more profitable, but there’s something seriously wrong with the PR bullshit he’s currently peddling, making himself out to be a champion of the worker–even the military veteran. That’s never been the goal. Worse yet, some smart people seem fooled by the charade

From Stephen Edelstein at Yahoo! Autos:

Tesla Motors is one of several automakers planning to put a self-driving car on sale sometime in the next few years, and it already seems to have at least one big fan.

This person isn’t a celebrity owner or safety advocate, but rather the CEO of preeminent ride-sharing company Uber.

If Tesla can build a fully-autonomous car by 2020, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says his company would buy it. In fact, he’d buy every one Tesla builds.

Yes, all 500,000 electric cars Tesla expects to produce in that year, according to Forbes (via Charged EVs).

That boast comes not directly from Kalanick himself, but from Steve Jurvetson–an early Tesla investor and board member.

Jurvetson relayed what he claimed were Kalanick’s remarks at the recent Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, hosted by the Churchill Club.•

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In a recent episode of EconTalk, host Russ Roberts invited journalist Adam Davidson of the New York Times to discuss, among other things, his recent articleWhat Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work.” In this “On Money” column, Davidson argues that short-term Hollywood projects–a freelance, piecemeal model–may be a wave of the future. The writer contends that this is better for highly talented workers and worrisome for the great middle. I’ll agree with the latter, though I don’t think the former is as uniformly true as Davidson believes. In life, stuff happens that talent cannot save you from, that the market will not provide for.

What really perplexed me about the program was the exchange at the end, when the pair acknowledges being baffled by Uber’s many critics. I sort of get it with Roberts. He’s a Libertarian who loves the unbridled nature of the so-called Peer Economy, luxuriating in a free-market fantasy that most won’t be able to enjoy. I’m more surprised by Davidson calling Uber a “solution” to the crisis of modern work, in which contingent positions have replaced FT posts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. You mean it’s a solution to a problem it’s contributed to? It seems a strange assertion given that Davidson has clearly demonstrated his concern about the free fall of the middle class in a world in which rising profits have been uncoupled from hiring.

The reason why Uber is considered an enemy of Labor is because Uber is an enemy of Labor. Not only are medallion owners and licensed taxi drivers (whose rate is guaranteed) hurt by ridesharing, but Uber’s union-less drivers are prone to pay decreases at the whim of the company (which may be why about half the drivers became “inactive”–quit–within a year). And the workers couldn’t be heartened by CEO Travis Kalanick giddily expressing his desire to be rid of all of them before criticism intruded on his obliviousness, and he began to pretend to be their champion for PR purposes.

The Sharing Economy (another poor name for it) is probably inevitable and Uber and driverless cars are good in many ways, but they’re not good for Labor. If Roberts wants to tell small-sample-size stories about drivers he’s met who work for Uber just until their start-ups receive seed money and pretend that they’re the average, so be it. The rest of us need to be honest about what’s happening so we can reach some solutions to what might become a widespread problem. If America’s middle class is to be Uberized, to become just a bunch of rabbits to be tasked, no one should be satisfied with the new normal.

From EconTalk:

Russ Roberts:

A lot of people are critical of the rise of companies like Uber, where their workforce is essentially piece workers. Workers who don’t earn an annual salary. They’re paid a commission if they can get a passenger, if they can take someone somewhere, and they don’t have long-term promises about, necessarily, benefits. They have to pay for their own car, provide their own insurance, and a lot of people are critical of that, and my answer is, Why do people do it if it’s so awful? That’s really important. But I want to say something slightly more optimistic about it which is a lot of people like Uber, working for Uber or working for a Hollywood project for six months, because when it’s over they can take a month off or a week off. A lot of the people I talk to who drive for Uber are entrepreneurs, they’re waiting for their funding to come through, they’re waiting for something to happen, and they might work 80 hours a week while they’re waiting and when the money comes through or when their idea starts to click, they’re gonna work five hours a week, and then they’ll stop, and they don’t owe any loyalty to anyone, they can move in and out of work as they choose. I think there’s a large group of people who really love that. And that’s a feature for many people, not a bug. What matters is–beside your satisfaction and how rewarding your life is emotionally in that world–your financial part of it depends on what you make while you’re working. It’s true it’s only sort of part-time, but if you make enough, and evidently many Uber drivers are former taxi drivers who make more money with Uber for example, if you make enough, it’s great, so it seems to me that if we move to a world where people are essentially their own company, their own brand, the captain of their own ship rather than an employee, there are many good things about that as long as they have the skills that are in demand that people are willing to pay for. Many people will unfortunately will not have those skills. It’s a serious issue, but for many people those are enormous pluses, not minuses. 

Adam Davidson:

Yes, I agree with you. Thinking of life as an Uber driver with that as your only possible source of income, I would guess that might be tough. Price competition is not gonna be your friend. Thinking about a world where you have a whole bunch of options, including Task Rabbit, and who knows what else, Airbnb, to earn money in a variety of ways, that’s at various times and at various levels of intensity, that strikes me as only good. If we could shove that into the 1950s, I think you would have seen a lot more people leaving that corporate model and starting their own businesses or spending more time doing more creative endeavors. That all strikes me as a helpful tool. It does sound like some of the people who work at Uber have kind of been jerks, but it does seem strange to me that some people are mad at the company that’s providing this opportunity. It is tough that lots of Americans are underemployed and aren’t earning enough. That’s a bad situation, but it is confusing to me that we get mad at companies that are providing a solution.•

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Uber is good for consumer experience and the environment, but CEO Travis Kalanick is determined to convince the public the rideshare company is also beneficial to workers, and that’s a lie. When half your employees quit in the first year, you haven’t created good jobs. When your business model kills many more-stable positions, you’re not good for employment. When you publicly lust for that day you can be rid of all your employees, you aren’t a friend of Labor. Maybe all these things are necessarily collateral damage in the march of progress, but let’s be honest about it.

From Ellen Huet’s Forbes report about the company’s fifth-anniversary ceremony:

Uber is adding “hundreds of thousands” of drivers globally every month, Kalanick said, and has 26,000 active drivers in New York, 15,000 in London, 10,000 in  Paris and 22,000 in San Francisco, the company said. It has 20,000 active drivers (and 42,000 who have ever signed up) in Chengdu, China, a region where Uber’s two major rivals recently merged and control almost 99% of the market. Uber often signs up many more drivers than remain current active drivers: In a recent study of U.S. drivers, Uber found that that almost half of its drivers stop driving after a year.

Because Uber tends to experiment and explore many different verticals — courier service and food delivery, for example — it was surprising that Kalanick barely mentioned the company’s potential outside of its core ride-hailing service. He only made one allusion — “just imagine all the goods and services you could get delivered quickly and safely with just the touch of a button” — to Uber’s other services. He also made no mention of Uber’s advances in developing autonomous cars, which have involved poaching numerous engineers and researchers from Carnegie Mellon to staff up its own research center.

Instead, the address focused on Uber’s effects on cities, urban transportation and its driver workforce. An Uber driver who is also a military wife gave the introduction for Kalanick and spoke briefly, occasionally tearing up, about how Uber’s flexible schedule allowed her to volunteer at her son’s school.•

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America has a love-hate relationship with Uber, wanting what it offers even if it knows the company is ethically challenged, a Walmart on wheels. (Or perhaps the love-hate relationship is really with ourselves for being addicted to something that we know hurts others.) In “How to Get Away with Uber,” a terribly titled Matter piece, Bobbie Johnson tries to locate the source of our visceral discomfort with the leading ridesharer, thinking it may lie in the unblinkingly brutal nature of its business model–capitalism boiled down to its purest form–and the uncharted path that lies ahead. An excerpt:

“[Uber CEO] Travis Kalanick certainly knows who his heroes are. He rejects the Amazon comparison, but he’s made no secret of his admiration for Bezos (who was, in fact, an early Uber investor), or his envy of Amazon’s relentless march from a mere supplier of services to a business that maintains a choke hold on modern life (Amazon was, in fact, almost called ‘Amazon was just books and then some CDs, and then they’re like, you know what, let’s do frickin’ ladders,’ Kalanick told Wired earlier this year. ‘We feel like we’re still realizing what the potential is… We don’t know yet where that stops.’

Amazon — more than any other company, more than Google, more than Facebook, more than Apple — taps into what people desire in a terrifyingly primal way: We want a thing, fast and preferably cheap. Not much else matters. We know Amazon’s not a nice company, and that the people who work there are treated poorly. We don’t always like it, but there is absolutely, definitively, nothing we will do to stop it. We are happily addicted.

That same feeling is there with Uber, except one thing: We know where Amazon has ended up, more or less, but we don’t know where Uber’s going to stop. Maybe, for Uber, it doesn’t stop at all. For Kalanick and his team, the means are the end. There is no greater mission. There is only hunger.

Raw, pure, unbridled ambition is an uncomfortable thing to look at. It’s not that it’s ugly, necessarily. It’s just brutally, shockingly honest. Uber does not pretend to have a glorious philosophy—it wants to make transport easy, but there is no aspiration as lofty as ‘organize the world’s information’ or ‘make the world more open and connected.’ And perhaps that’s the way it should be. After all, would it be more offensive if Uber had a mission beyond itself? It certainly feels like less of a betrayal to know that it just wants to be as big, as powerful, as necessary, as it can be.”

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Consumers love Uber, and the rideshare company has things to recommend it: convenient smartphone “hailing,” cashless payments, etc. But as is the case with Walmart, what’s good for the consumer is not so for the worker. There are hidden costs. Travis Kalanick’s outfit scorches the earth and then marginalizes the labor–even hopes to eliminate it altogether. And as society becomes more and more automated, many of us will end up living on those margins, at least in the short and medium term. In a sense, we’re all Uber drivers now. From Avi Asher-Schapiro at Verge, a story about Uber ostensibly offering to help unemployed veterans move into a new field, which will essentially just shuffle them from one kind of tenuousness into another, all for good public relations. An excerpt:

“Launched this September by the international car service giant Uber, UberMILITARY aims to hire 50,000 vets — nearly a quarter of currently unemployed Iraq and Afghanistan War soldiers — in the next 18 months. (Though that number seems ambitious, the company claims to hire 50,000 drivers every month.)

To aid in its effort, Uber has enlisted respected armed forces commanders such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, and former general Stanley A. McChrystal as volunteer ambassadors to the veteran community.

Gates has called the initiative an ‘unprecedented effort… to ensure that tens of thousands of our nation’s military members, veterans, and spouses have access to a unique entrepreneurial opportunity.’

But veterans currently driving for Uber are concerned that military commanders are sending vets like Malik into low-wage and unstable employment.

As one army machine gunner turned Los Angeles Uber driver put it, ‘Uber promises a good job, but in reality it’s a very precarious way to make a living. I’m looking for a new job, and there’s no way I would recommend this life to other vets.

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Uber has just hit a speed bump in Germany, facing its first nation-wide ban (which it’s defying). Instead of getting giddy in interviews over the potential destruction of jobs, company CEO Travis Kalanick would do himself a big favor if he would instead focus on the ways the old system was flawed. Take my city of New York for instance: It’s always been difficult to get a taxi to the outer boroughs from Manhattan, African-Americans have had a hell of a time getting a ride anywhere and unwitting tourists have often been ripped off by predatory drivers. Uber can be viewed as an equalizer of sorts (provided it doesn’t fail in the same manner). From Jeevan Vasagar at the Financial Times:

“Uber is facing its biggest legal challenge so far after its most popular service was banned throughout Germany, marking the first time the disruptive taxi app has been hit with a country-wide restriction.

The temporary injunction imposed by Frankfurt’s Regional Court prohibits the fast-growing company, valued in a recent funding round at $17bn, from operating its Uber Pop ‘ride-sharing’ service, known as Uber X in other markets.

Uber said it would continue to operate in defiance of the injunction, but it faces fines of up to €250,000 ($328,000) per trip if it is caught violating the ban, which does not affect its higher-priced ‘Black’ limousine service.

The San Francisco-based start-up is one of a number of Silicon Valley firms, including Google and Facebook, to face a regulatory backlash in Europe, where authorities have led the way in questioning the practices of California’s leading technology companies.”

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You can’t blame the CEO of Uber for not trying to fight the advent of driverless cars–he wouldn’t win that war. But like the rest of us, he probably should be a little concerned about the job loss caused by the market disruption. From Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider:

“Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sat for a keynote interview at Code Conference this afternoon in Southern California.

During the interview, Code editor Kara Swisher asked Kalanick what he thinks of self-driving cars.

‘Love it. All day long,’ said Kalanick.

‘The reason Uber could be expensive is you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there is no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere is cheaper. Even on a road trip.’

Kalanick said that self-driving cars ordered up through a service like Uber will eventually bring the cost of ridership so far down that car ownership will ‘go away.’

He said self-driving Uber fleets will also be safer and ‘more environmentally friendly.’

Obviously lots of Uber drivers will lose their jobs over time if this vision comes to life. Kalanick is OK with that.”

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There’s risk in progress, more than in the status quo. But people usually accept the risk for greater rewards. From Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times profile of Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick, who sees all Camaros, Camrys and Corvettes as potentially being cabs:

“Silicon Valley’s more wide-eyed start-up founders often pitch their ideas as ‘saving the world’ – and genuinely believe that is what they’re doing, however mundane or minute the technical advances. Uber is more nakedly competitive and ambitious. ‘We feel we are very honest and authentic, to the point of being brutally honest,’ Kalanick says with some understatement. ‘Not everyone likes that style, and I get that, but at least we’re trustworthy.’

Nonetheless, many city halls still aren’t sure how to handle Uber, a ‘marketplace’ that owns no cars and employs no drivers – especially when, in 2012, it began to allow anyone with a car and a good driving record to be a makeshift taxi driver. Local authorities challenging this ride-sharing model are often encouraged by actual taxi drivers and their unions, who argue that Uber lacks the proper insurance and has been insufficiently thorough in its background checks.

Uber insists that its insurance is ‘best in class’ and its driver checks ‘among the most stringent in the industry.’ But its record on safety and liability will soon be tested in court. The parents of a six-year-old girl killed in an incident involving an Uber driver on New Year’s eve in San Francisco are suing the company. Uber has denied responsibility because the driver was not carrying a passenger at the time, which means its insurance was not applicable.

This is an extreme case, but Kalanick’s response to legal challenges has typically been hard-nosed; despite the rulings in Brussels and Berlin, the service continues to operate there, he proudly points out. He has earned his reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s most combative operators. ‘I’m a natural born trust-buster,’ he says of his mission to smash the taxi cartels. ‘That’s probably the best way to put it.’

That’s not what many would call Kalanick. He’s more often styled as an ultra-capitalist, not least because of ‘surge pricing,’ where Uber doubles or triples fares during busy periods such as rush hour or in bad weather.”